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Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I loved Julio Torres’s My Favorite Shapes, a comedy special centered around his beloved collection of trinkets and objects, which arrive via a conveyor belt onto a set that looks like a gay futuristic dollhouse. So I was super excited to see Torres’s first feature film Problemista—if a little afraid of being disappointed. I am happy to report that it is a perfect entry in the nearly extinct genre of fun 90-minute movies.

Problemista is a story of an El Salvadoran immigrant, played by Torres himself, on a quest to get a work visa and a job designing toys for Hasbro. He links up with a pathologically difficult art critic (Tilda Swinton) who has promised to sponsor him if he can help assemble a show of her late husband’s paintings. (The Isabella Rossellini narration is a nice touch; I would guess Torres chose her because of her own charming and aesthetically-aligned DIY series about the sex lives of animals, Green Porno.) The movie’s fierce aesthetic dedication reminded me of Wes Anderson, but unlike Anderson, Torres’s world never feels twee or indulgent. Also contra Anderson, it never steamrolls the emotional content of the film. On the contrary, each shot—of garbage put out on a New York street or collected in a puddle; of shoes and various tech wires in the Swinton’s chaotic loft—is a rich still life, brimming with emotional information. Give Julio Torres all the money!

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): With The Old Oak, Ken Loach—the most uncompromising of left-wing directors—has likely ended a staggering filmmaking career that began in 1967. For nearly six decades, Loach’s focus has always been on the working class: its struggles, its failures, and its victories, which are more often moral than material. While his appreciation for workers has not made him blind to their flaws, he has been unwavering in his belief that there is only one revolutionary class, one force that can change the world. His final trio of films—I, Daniel Blake; Sorry We Missed You, and now The Old Oak—are all shot in the northeast of England, once a hotbed of radicalism and a center of Labour Party power. Loach shows us the tragic results of the death of the industries that made the northeast so vital: Demoralization, unemployment, poverty, and utter despair have replaced solidarity and hope, as much of working-class Britain has become a source of the xenophobia at the heart of Brexit.

The Old Oak, which largely stars non-professional actors, takes place somewhere near Newcastle and Durham, in a once-thriving mining village that died when the pits were shut down after the miners’ strike of 1984 was crushed. Syrian immigrants have been bused into the town, and at the center of their support network is a struggling, bedraggled pub owner named TJ. His desire to support the town’s new residents isn’t something he understands as political; he is simply a decent man who has screwed up his life and now wants to do the right thing. Taking on this role pits him against a small group of his regulars who spend their days inveighing against the foreigners, whom they claim get everything while they, the native-born, get nothing. With the help of his new friend Yara, an energetic young Syrian woman who learned English in a refugee camp, TJ does all he can to integrate the Syrians into the community. He even applies a solidarity-forging tactic from the miners’ strike by having refugees and locals eat together in his pub.

It’s an arduous struggle, and TJ must battle his own despair to carry on. But if in Loach’s most recent films the fight has been a futile one, it was always unlikely that he would end his career on a hopeless note. While the utopian finale scene is perhaps a tad too pat, it nevertheless succeeds in tugging at our heartstrings. And in an inspired move, Loach has the end credits play over footage of the annual march to Durham Cathedral to honor the miners’ legacy, which includes a blessing of banners. Among them is one made by Syrian refugees, proclaiming, “Strength, Solidarity, Resistance.” This beautiful image is the perfect visual shorthand for the locals’ acceptance of their new comrades.

With The Old Oak, Loach leaves filmmaking the way he came in: a fighter.


Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety. The text is divided into 54 parshiyot, or sections; given the idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew calendar and occasional doubling up of parshiyot, this works out to one parshah per week, which Jews around the world read concurrently on Shabbat morning. This universally regimented schedule is a foundation for Jewish communal discourse and interpretation, the text accruing ever-increasing strata of meaning over the course of generations. As the insights of each new year are layered on those that came before, every new reading of the parshah is also a re-reading. Each word, even each letter, points not to one stable meaning but to an endlessly generative world of signification.

Last week, we inaugurated a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. While it might seem strange for a historically secular magazine to embark on such a project, especially when we’re already in Vayikra, the third book of the Torah—rather than at the beginning of the year, with the opening verses of Breishit—we are trying this now because many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification. This is a deeply difficult moment to be in the wider Jewish world, as mainstream communities have by and large supported Israel without reservation while it has killed at least 33,000 people in Gaza. As pictures surface of soldiers celebrating Jewish holidays in Gaza and reading from the Torah using a military knife, it’s easy to feel that the tradition is theirs alone. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Shemini

In her landmark 1966 book Purity and Danger, the British anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that purity rituals and symbols uphold existing narratives and the hierarchies they ordain. The establishment of people, creatures, or behaviors as “impure” is a manifestation of the human impulse to reject “any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications,” she writes. This week’s parshah, Shemini, presents a complex system of purity and impurity that exemplifies her point.

The parshah offers a long and detailed list of impure creatures that are to be avoided through either consumption or contact. In verse after verse, the Torah identifies types of animals or scenarios in which one might encounter an animal’s carcass and declares: “it is tameih [impure] for you.” All of these laws, the Torah explains, exist so that the Jewish people can distinguish between that which is tameih and that which is tahor (pure), which makes them holy and uniquely set apart for God. As the parshah explains, “you shall not make yourselves impure with [impure animals] and thus become impure. For I, Adonai, am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. ” The parshah seemingly solidifies distinctions between pure and impure—and, consequently, between good and bad.

But the rabbis of the Talmud probe these ostensibly immutable categories and distinctions. If it is a desire for order that first brought these categorizations into the world, it is the pleasure of subversiveness and the rabbinic proclivity for gradience, expansiveness, and subversion that drives the rabbis to play with them. The Talmud, for example, praises Rabbi Meir because he could declare something impure to be pure and something pure to be impure, providing sound and convincing justifications for each ruling. We learn later in this passage that one of his students could, using his creativity and analytical reasoning, declare an animal explicitly described in the Torah as impure to be pure, citing 150 reasons that supported his argument. This analytically subversive ability later becomes a criterion for political leadership on the Sanhedrin, the highest court within the rabbinic frame. The medieval commentator the Meiri explains that such a requirement exists so that if a later generation encounters a difficulty with some aspect of Torah, they “will know how to renew, add, or remove that which was previously taught in order to create new essential teachings needed in this moment, all while finding support for their words from the Torah.” Rabbi Meir’s project and the lineage it establishes counters the Torah’s binary categorization of creatures as tameih and tahor, recognizing that purity and impurity are not static, but rather demand reinterpretation and readjudication.

Often, dominant narratives can become so deeply entrenched that they themselves are understood as tahor—unimpeachable and beyond reproach. But the rabbis’ ingenuity should inspire us to question stories we have inherited as fixed. Over the past years—and especially the past months—powerful organizing has done precisely this, troubling entrenched narratives about Jews, our safety, and our relationship to power and victimhood; what was once tahor now seems open to contestation. Despite the horror of this time, it is also a moment of profound possibility, as we glimpse the ways in which many of the schemas that appear to dominate our world can be upended.

—Laynie Soloman